Thursday, November 1, 2007

Wrangling about ranges

When you're using the construction "from X to Y," make sure it's an actual range you're talking about. A geographic range such as "from Seattle to Los Angeles" clearly has starting and ending points -- and the crucial points in between. So do the ranges "from joy to devastation" and "from head to toe."

But avoid it when you're simply listing examples. "From ham to cranberries" doesn't suggest a spectrum; it's simply two foods. Better alternatives: "such as ham and cranberries" or "including ham and cranberries."

Another logic error to avoid is listing three items in a range. A range has a start point and an end point. Not two starts or two ends. If you're expressing a range such as "from Seattle to Los Angeles," there's no need to list a point in the middle. Take the bloated "from Seattle to San Francisco to Los Angeles." San Francisco is implied in the range -- as is every other point between Seattle and Los Angeles. If what you really wanted to do was list these three cities, then do that. "The trip covered much of the West Coast, including Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles."

For an excellent discussion on this topic, see Bill Walsh's post on false ranges.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Peikoff's Principles of Grammar course

If you're looking for a clear, basic overview of grammar in audio format (with written exercises to boot), consider Leonard Peikoff's Principles of Grammar course.

I received the audio-tape set as a gift years back and truly enjoyed it. Peikoff presents the lectures as grammar lessons for writers, explicitly excluding matters of style (which vary from publication to publication) and more in-depth grammatical analysis. He provides a good summary of grammar basics and addresses ways to adjust your writing's structure or diction to elicit various rhetorical effects.

Very worthwhile -- for a writer or an editor.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Log on. No password required?

In many cases, "go to Web site X" is more accurate than "log on to Web site X." If you're entering a username and a password, fine. But beyond that, there's just no "logging in" going on.

And then we have the question of using one word or two.

"Login," "logon," "logout," and "logoff" function as adjectives:
This is our logout page.
Update your login information.

"Log in," "log on," "log out," and "log off" function as verbs ("verb phrases" if you want to get technical):
Log in here.
You should log off before you leave work.

You also want the two-word forms for verbals (a verbal is a noun or an adjective that was derived from a verb):
Logging in is easy. (Here, "logging in" is a noun. It's the thing that is [verb] easy [adjective].)

Friday, June 1, 2007

The emperor's new asterisk

So you're reading along and you come across something like this:
When Joe Schmo thought the microphone was off, he said, "Proposition 90 is s**t."

My hunch is your brain reads "s**t" and readily understands it as "shit." Am I wrong? I don't think I'm wrong.

So let's figure that we all easily understand "s**t" as "shit." Effectively we have an alternate spelling of "shit."

If you really wanted to make the profanity obscure, you'd use something more along the lines of:
When Joe Schmo thought the microphone was off, he said, "Proposition 90 is [obscenity]."

Unless you're legitimately concerned that your publication will be read by children, it seems silly to protect adults from the offensive character set "shit" when you print "s--t" with the understanding that they'll fully comprehend it as an alternate spelling.

But the funny thing is, I sense that adult readers are happier reading "s**t" and comprehending "shit" than being confronted with the horror of those extra two letters.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

We are weird

Ah, mnemonic devices. Here are some of my favorites:

weird: "we are weird"; useful if you tend to transpose "ei" in this word

accommodate: the word is gracious enough to accommodate two C's and two M's

stationary/stationery: E for "envelope": the spelling with an E is the one that refers to writing materials

vacuum: "uuuuuuuu" is like the sound of a vacuum, which should help you remember that it's just the U that's duplicated

battalion: "battle lion": adding an extra L is a common error; this should help you remember which letter is duplicated

cemetery: E for "eternity": this word is often misspelled with an A (cemetary); remember that it's all E's for this word

Friday, May 25, 2007

The lady and the Lakers

Laker cheerleader? Cub player? A proper noun shouldn't change form just because it's used as an adjective. If you're referring to a player for a team called "the Cubs," then the player is a "Cubs player."

Let's venture outside the world of sports for some examples. You wouldn't call a fan of The Beatles a "Beatle fan" or a Darth Vader action figure a "Star War toy." The same logic should apply to a fan of the Dodgers. So “Dodgers fan,” if you please.

And now the bad news. Don't change a misused word if it appears as part of phrase that is itself a proper noun (e.g., "Laker Girl" or "Dodger Stadium"). Just as I could change my name to Mud Fence, sports teams are free to give cheerleaders and ball fields whatever titles they want. So enjoy a Dodgers game with a crowd of Dodgers fans, but if you're writing up your experiences for the day, don't forget to refer to the stadium by its Dodgers-given name, no matter how illogical that name may be.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Don't abuse bemuse

"Bemuse" isn't a synonym for "amuse." It means to confuse or to occupy the attention of.

Another duo that trips people up is "affect" and "effect."

The verb "affect" means to influence:
Your constant chattering affects my ability to concentrate.

The verb "effect" means to bring about:
If we campaign hard, we may effect change.

The noun "effect" refers to a result:
When I wear earplugs, your noise has no effect on me.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Practice those copy editing skills

Amy Einsohn's The Copyeditor's Handbook is a terrific resource if you want to refresh your skills for a copy editing job. The book is full of exercises with answer keys.

I worked through the book in 2000 while I was freelancing. The exercises were a good reminder of how important it is to slow down when you're editing. (I'm on a newspaper copy desk now, and slow is not the order of the day. We sometimes slam through stories in a few minutes, which is stressful on a number of levels.) But if you have the luxury of not working on an immediate deadline, take your time.